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Petunia Envy

With spring in full swing and summer soon upon us, many of you are no doubt wondering what the well-dressed garden will be wearing this season. Pink or lavender? Blue and yellow? All white perhaps?

How about black?

You heard me right. Black flowers have intrigued gardeners at least since 1850 when Alexander Dumas published The Black Tulip, his historical adventure novel about a Dutch contest to breed the first black tulip. Plants men, in fact, tried for centuries to produce a black tulip until “Queen of the Night” came along in 1944. Considered the closest there is to a true black tulip, the Queen is actually a very dark maroon. In fact, most so-called black flowers aren’t black; most are extremely deep shades of purple, maroon, or burgundy.

Though the tulip is the most popular black flower, the gardener seeking something unusual and elegant today has his or her pick of more than two dozen black roses and several types of black irises and lilies. Carnations, dahlias, geraniums, hollyhocks, and pansies even come in basic black too.

This year’s black sensation is a petunia called “Black Velvet” developed by flower breeder Jianping Ren for the Ball Colegrave Company. It took her four years to breed the extremely dark petunia — what some are calling the Birkin bag of the garden — using traditional methods of pollination and not genetic modification. Two years is what it usually takes to produce a new color of petunia, according to Ren, who boasts over a dozen patents on new varieties of petunias.

Petunias are a classic summer annual, a cousin to tobacco and the tomato and a native of South America. Flower hunters introduced the petunia to Europe in the early 1800s and breeders immediately began crossing them in search of larger flowers and more colors. The first true red petunia was brought out in 1953. Yellow was introduced in 1977.

Those in the know claim it is rare to get a flower as near to true black as “Black Velvet,” which is why gardeners around the world are snatching them up despite a rather high price attached to what is still regarded by many as a rather common plant. I bought all I could find over Easter weekend.

Now, looking at flats of the black petunias still sitting unplanted in my garden, I had to wonder: was I was following in the tradition of great botanical explorers of the 17th and 18th Centuries whose pursuit of exotic flowers took them across the globe? Or, was I merely a garden fashionista sucked in by the power of a horticulture industry that still thinks about plants like next season’s shoes?

There’s even an ad campaign touting the “Black Velvet” petunia as an instant classic, the most unique flower of the year, and one hot plant sure to make your garden the envy of your neighbors.

Moreover, what does this black petunia means in the grand scheme of gardening, which has been trending towards more natural, nativist plantings? Am I out of step in my desire for the trendy annual? Last year I went gaga a for a chartreuse colored zinnia called “Envy.” Before that it was blue batik irises and an heirloom tomato called “Mr. Stripey.”

While I mull this conflict and, more importantly, try to figure out what do with all these black petunias I bought, at least I can take comfort in knowing they’ll look great with the black and white striped awnings on my white house.


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